Psychology of aggression essay

Psychology of aggression essay

Unfortunately, aggression has become a commonplace thing in the modern world. There are countries, where aggression belongs to local culture, for example, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Still, even in those countries, where aggression and violence are considered to be out of the norm and could be even illegal, they are not rare. Most people face violence and aggression in indirect ways, like on television or on the Internet, but there are enough individuals, who are to face aggression directly and moreover suffer from it. There is a great number of various forms of aggression, including verbal insults, hostile rejection, or physical contact. Any form of aggression is considered to be an important part of human conditions.

The precise definition of the concept of aggression is rather difficult to formulate, as aggression might be theoretically applied in a great number of situations, in order to describe a person, saying rush and unpleasant things, and to describe a murder. For the scientific discourse, this problem of definition is even more profound. Taking this fact into consideration, there is little chance to find a unitary concept of aggression and it seems necessary to trace the functional relationships between the actions of aggression and the concrete causes of these actions. “The various behaviors now subsumed by the word ‘aggression’ could undoubtedly be studied as individual phenomena defined in terms of their own antecedent conditions, intervening processes, and outcomes. Nevertheless, such studies would obscure the possibility that the aggressive behaviors noted above,  however  different they  may  seem, possess some common features.”(Geen, R. G. 2001, p. 10). Human aggression is one of the most controversial and sophisticated concepts in human behavior, thus it is studied and researched by specialists in different fields and the results of their research contribute to a better understanding of human aggression and its roots.

Most psychologists accept the definition, worked out by Buss (1961) “aggression is a response that delivers noxious stimuli to another organism”. Still, it seems to be not correct to limit the definition of the concept of aggression only to describing a harm-doing behavior, aggression is not that simple. There is a number of other elements, which should be added and they cause a lot of complexities. Some researchers assume that it is necessary to add intent to harm the victim. It is logical, as any action should have stimuli or motivation. Thus Dollard et al. (1939) suggested his version definition of aggression as “an act whose goal-response is an injury to an organism”. Using the term “goal-response” the authors wanted to underline that there is some motivation for the development of aggression and aggression is the result of deliberate series of actions. Dollard underlined the importance of distinguishing the situation when aggression was motivated from the one when an individual does harm to another person without intention, as this is an accident and not a case of aggression. Still, it is not possible to state that intent is the only factor, allowing distinguishing between aggression and lack of aggression. There are situations possible when there is a need to save a human life for example by firefighters and they might cause harm, but this would not be considered an expression of aggression from their side.

Aggression is able to bring negative effects and adaptive benefits. Aggressive behavior is a variant of collective social interaction between individuals when there is a hostile attitude towards some participants of this communication and an evident intention to do harm. Still taking into consideration the fact that the concept of aggression is rather broad, there were various types of aggression pointed out: affective and retaliatory, reactive and proactive. There is a great number of approaches towards building a classification of aggression, depending upon the motives of aggressive behaviors and reactions. In addition, such factors as social manipulation, aggression-related emotions, mental states, etc. also need to be considered. Definition of aggression and its classification might also depend upon the moral and political views of a concrete society. In some kinds of sports or some kinds of workplaces, some forms of aggression could be accepted or sanctioned.

Biological approaches treat aggression from the point of view of internal energy, which is released after receipt of some external stimuli; this reaction is also influenced by genetics and hormonal fluctuations. Psychologists consider aggression to be close to some destructive instinct, which is developed in individuals in response to frustration. Violence in the frames of aggression could become adaptive in conditions of natural selection. Examples of these conditions are the search for food or the desire to survive. Aggression could be the result of severe competition between the members of the same subgroup if they are struggling for obtaining higher status or need to protect themselves. “There are some hypotheses of specific adaptations for violence in humans under certain circumstances, including for homicide, but it is often unclear what behaviors may have been selected for and what may have been a byproduct, as in the case of collective violence.” (Buss, 2005). Such aggressive encounters are usually described in the animal kingdom, but they are also possible in human societies.

Forms of aggression could vary. Often, when people hear the word aggression, they usually imagine a serious fight or an assault, which in reality is not always the case, as is clear from the definition above. Any action or behavior, which is motivated by an intent to harm other people, could be considered aggression. This means that vicious gossip could also be considered aggression.  In other words, there are a lot of examples of aggression and correspondingly there are a lot of reasons and motives for aggressive behaviors.

Aggression should not be considered in isolation, this means that it is usually accompanied by a number of strong negative emotions and states. For example, if an individual is to face any kind of provocation, he gets angry and anger is the preliminary stage before becoming aggressive in response. Johanson (1981) commented about anger that it “is most often thought of as an intervening condition that instigates, and then guides, affective aggressive behavior aimed primarily at injuring the provoking person. It is accompanied by distinctive patterns of activity in the central and autonomic nervous systems, including activation of the hypothalamus, increased blood flow to the musculature, heightened blood pressure and pulse rate, pupillary dilation, and decreased flow of blood to the viscera.” In the case of anger, there is a retaliatory aggressive reaction, which could be easily explained. The problem is that sometimes retaliation develops long after an individual had experienced the feeling of anger and aggression in this case seems to be not related to anger for people around him. This kind of “delayed response” is referred to as effective aggression. On the one hand, aggression might have a lot of features in common with anger: arousal, preoccupation, impulses, etc. On the other hand, aggression is still different from anger, as there is a different duration between provocation and response. This means that aggression could not be considered a purely emotional state, rather it is a more complex cognitive state, which is related to emotions to some extent, but does not belong to them.

Individuals reveal aggressive behaviors in case there is a strong emotional basis for this. Aggression could be the result of self-defense or in the case of military personnel the result of the necessity to fulfill the order. Some individuals utilize instrumental aggression as a way to manipulate other people and show their power over them, or when they are told to be aggressive towards other people by somebody, who has a stronger authority. There is no rigorous difference between instrumental and affective aggression, as most cases of aggression have properties of both types.

Most experts distinguish between reactive and proactive aggression. Proactive aggression is revealed in aggressive behavior, which is the result of provocation like an insult for example, and is manifested in angry actions. Reactive aggression does not demand additional stimulation or motivation, and one of the best examples of it is bullying. In the case of bullying an individual does not experience any provocation or anger and is not forced to defend himself, the only motive for reactive aggression could be the desire to establish power over other individuals. “Reactive and proactive aggression is the equivalent of what earlier theorists called affective and instrumental aggression.  The effective –instrumental (or reactive–proactive) differentiation will come up in certain specific contexts in this book, and the reader should bear in mind the differences between the two kinds of aggression.” (Geen, R. G. 2001, p. 11).

More and more studies support the possibility of a strong connection between aggression and genetics or hereditary factors. During the period, when most psychologists assumed that behaviorism plays the dominating role in psychology, it is widely stated that human behaviors could be explained with the help of various hereditary factors. Nowadays this assumption is not that widely accepted, but still, there are ideas that human aggressiveness could be inherited. Human reproduction is different from that of lower animals, as there is no possibility to control it via selective breeding. “One such method involves a comparison between pairs of twins.  Twin studies analyze similarities between members of identical (monozygotic)  and non-identical,  or fraternal  (dizygotic),  pairs.  The method rests on the fact that  whereas dizygotic twins share a common environment but are not identical in genetic make-up, monozygotic twins share a common environment and are also identical in heredity.” (Geen, R. G. 2001, p. 11).

If there is any hereditary trait, then it should be shared by monozygotic twins. Those evidence of biological factors for aggression, which was received after analysis of twin pairs, are considered to be inconclusive. Stronger results are presented by the study of Rushto et al. Taking three traits: altruism, nurturance, and empathy, they assumed that they are negatively related, whereas assertiveness and aggressiveness are considered to be positively related to aggressive behaviors. Rushto et al. (1987). writes that “the results showed that correlations were higher among monozygotic twins than among dizygotic pairs for each of the five traits.” There were similar studies conducted, using different methods; they showed that twins reveal similar degrees of aggressiveness to their mothers.

Hormones are considered to be related to aggressive behavior by human beings. Testosterone is probably one of the best-known hormones, which is recognized in studies of aggression. Testosterone is able to influence the development of the body and the functioning of the nervous system of the fetus long before its birth. These influences are united under the term – organizing effects. At the same time, testosterone is responsible for mood changes and behaviors after birth. All these facts are relevant for animals and at the moment there is no agreement among researchers, on whether all this data could be equally applied to humans. “Some investigators deny that testosterone has any important function in human  aggression, insisting that the dominance of social and cognitive factors in human  behavior outweigh any influence that hormones may have.” (Campbell, 1999 ). Based on these studies it is possible to conclude that there is a possibility that the aggression of humans could be to the same extent influenced by hormones as in situations with animals.

Currently, there are a lot of theories, which look for an explanation of the reasons and roots of human aggression in the differences between sexes. Gender is said to have a vitally important role in the development of aggression. The major weak point of these theories is the lack of proper understanding of the roles of the conditions, in which females and males react differently and reveal different degrees of aggression, still remain unclear. “In general, sexual dimorphism can be attributed to greater intraspecific competition in one sex, either between rivals for access to mates and/or to be chosen by mates. This may stem from the other gender being constrained by providing greater parental investment, in terms of factors such as gamete production, gestation, lactation, or upbringing of young.” (Eagly & Steffen, 1986).

Males are considered to be generally more aggressive in comparison to females. In those species, where males also participate in taking care of offspring, the difference between sexes is not that evident. The role of ecological factors in human evolution is rather sophisticated and controversial and this is the reason, why this pattern, when males are considered to be more aggressive, than females, is also under discussion. Enough attention should be paid here to the social roles of the sexes, as this also contributed to the differences or lack of them. The only thing, which could be stated for sure is that aggression by most women is less dangerous due to their weaker physical force. Sex differences in aggression are considered to be the oldest findings in psychology. The journal of Aggressive Behavior conducted the study in nine countries and this study showed that boys are more inclined toward physical aggression in comparison to girls. Still, there was no difference between sexes in relational aggression found out. Girls revealed the tendency toward reactive aggression and then retract, boys, do not retract after the first reaction, but rather increase.

A lot of researchers prefer to focus their attention on studies of human brains in order to provide their explanation of the roots of aggression. Neocortical and subcortical structures are put on the top of the priorities list for defining the control of aggressive behavior. “In mammals, the hypothalamus and periaqueductal gray of the midbrain are critical areas, as shown in studies on cats, rats, and monkeys. These brain areas control the expression of both behavioral and autonomic components of aggression in these species, including vocalization. Electrical stimulation of the hypothalamus causes aggressive behavior.” (Kruk, 1983). Along with brain processes, researchers paid attention to chemicals in the brain, for example, neurotransmitters. Together with a number of other factors, these chemicals are also able to impact human aggression.

Konrad Lorenz studied the reasons for human aggression and described them in his writing On Aggression. Lorenz (1963) wrote that there are generally four drives of human behavior – fear, reproduction, hunger, and aggression. Other researchers assumed that aggressive behavior appears, when people are in need, in other words, when they feel they might lack resources for their survival. Thus cultural and social aspects also need to be considered in relation to human aggression and its causes. One of the simplest examples is the connection between the level of aggressiveness and the density of the population. The higher the density, the most difficult is for people to reach the resources, and the more aggressive would their behaviors become.

In the introduction to this writing, it was already mentioned that the concept of aggression might be understood and perceived differently in various countries and societies, depending upon their generally accepted cultural norms and regulations. A lot of researchers are convinced that culture is one of the key factors, which have an impact on aggression. There were studies conducted in order to research hunter-gatherers, as they could be in a way opposed to most modern technology societies. It turned out that these people are able to manage most of their conflicts, using various verbal and nonverbal methods, while avoiding any aggression. This does not mean that there are no cases of aggression and violence, but they do their best to avoid direct confrontation. An American psychologist Peter Gray assumed that most luckily hunter-gatherer societies were able to reduce their levels of aggression and create a more or less peaceful atmosphere, utilizing various methods. They supported playful spirit in all spheres of their relations and used humor in order to avoid conflicts, they supported the leadership of one person.

Speaking about modern societies, psychologists paid attention to physical punishment, which is the result of the aggression of the parents and this aggression is transmitted to their children. There were numerous studies conducted, which proved, that the more physical punishment is applied to a child, the greater the chance that he would behave aggressively and violently in the future. At the same time, there are countries, where physical punishment of children is considered to be culturally accepted. Their people do not associate aggression with physical punishment, irrespective of this approach, child aggression tends to develop in any culture, as the result of physical punishment. Family violence researcher Murray A. Straus argues, “There are many reasons this evidence has been ignored. One of the most important is the belief that spanking is more effective than nonviolent discipline and is, therefore, sometimes necessary, despite the risk of harmful side effects” (Murray et. al., 2013).

In most developed countries people are really dependent upon modern technologies and media. This is the reason, why scholars developed a theory that aggressive behaviors might be the result of watching and imitating the behavior of other people, and also the media could be influential. Young people like playing video games and in many of them they are to kill, shoot, to be violent. Unfortunately, they tend to project these kinds of behavior in their real lives, in their real relations. Television violence and aggression are able impacts negatively as well.

Finally, some studies have shown that the peak of human aggression is usually around 2-3 years of age. When a child is getting older, the level of his aggression gradually declines. The conclusion to make here is that aggression is not simply the result of some learned behavior or hereditary factors, but is also related to the learning and biological development opportunities and the ability to self-regulate. There is a percentage of children, who turn out to be not able to develop the needed self-regulatory abilities and consequently reveal atypical levels of aggression towards people around them. Such cases are rather dangerous, as there is a high degree of possibility that these children would continue to be aggressive when they grow up and would not adjust to the norms of society. Early aggression is certainly not the absolute condition for later aggressive behavior but still is used as a predicting factor for it. The situation could be worsened by the environment in the child’s family and socioeconomic factors.

Overall, the concept of aggression is rather sophisticated and versatile; it has been studied in the frames of various theories and approaches. Experts from the fields of biology, history, sociology, and psychology worked on defining it and working out the theories of its roots and causes. In fact, aggressive behaviors might vary, depending upon the age of individuals, their social and cultural backgrounds, their education and hobbies, their ethical and psychological levels of development, etc. There are proofs that aggression is influenced by a great number of various factors, including hereditary, social, cultural, psychological, biological, etc. At the moment there is no universally accepted approach to the all-sided interpretation of aggression, this means that there is a need for further research in this field.


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